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Leaders work on outreach as COVID-19 hits Hall's Latino community hard
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Pilgrim's employees cross Industrial Boulevard Tuesday, April 14, 2020, as they arrive and leave the Gainesville poultry plant. - photo by Scott Rogers

In Hall County, nearly half of patients testing positive for COVID-19 are Latino, according to data provided to The Times by Northeast Georgia Health System.

According to 2019 census estimates, 29% of Hall County is considered Latino.

NGHS data — which includes tests completed on specimens from NGHS facilities and Longstreet Clinic — shows 49% of COVID-19 cases from Hall County are Latino. Across the entire NGHS service area, which spans most of Northeast Georgia, 30% of cases were identified as Latino, according to the data. 

Dr. Antonio Rios, chief physician executive for Northeast Georgia Physicians Group, said a significant number of cases are concentrated in areas with high poverty rates.

“You have people of low socioeconomic and educational status not understanding or having access to the information regarding quarantine, how to clean your house, interaction with family members, etc.,” Rios said.

These families are living paycheck-to-paycheck, often in homes that have multiple generations or families inside, Rios said.

“The Latino community has been hit heavily, and that’s because there are a good number of families that live together,” said Art Gallegos Jr., president of the Latinos Conservative Organization. “There are some families or households, better yet, that are composed of acquaintances or friends who live together and they have to go out or they work, and they don’t have a way to self-quarantine themselves, because they live in a household with a few other people.”

Hispanic Alliance GA Executive Director Vanesa Sarazua - photo by Scott Rogers
Hispanic Alliance GA Executive Director Vanesa Sarazua said they are trying to support families who have fallen ill from the disease. One Latino man with six children has been in the intensive care unit, while another Latino mother was hospitalized for eight days and “couldn’t even talk,” Sarazua said.

Hall County is “an essential worker county where food is produced and processed” where many workers in these industries are Latino, Sarazua said.

When discussing the socioeconomic divide, health system spokesman Sean Couch said some workers particularly in industries such as manufacturing and construction are coming home to multi-generational households “where you have the extremely young living with the extremely old.”

“A lot of times, space is an issue,” Couch said.

With certain models predicting a surge in cases in the coming weeks, there could be a greater need for people to find temporary “alternative isolation housing,” Couch said

“Some of our local industries are already talking about how might we identify an area that could serve that way. How might the state be able to assist us with some funding to be able to outfit that or pay for that?” Couch said. “It’s still really early in the conversation. I don’t think anyone knows what it looks like yet, but that’s the type of preparation and thinking that collectively this community is thinking about.”

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A Pilgrim's employee walks across Industrial Boulevard Tuesday, April 14, 2020, prior to entering the Gainesville poultry plant. COVID-19 has hit the Latino community particularly hard, so the poultry industry has been taking additional safety measures to protect its workers, many of whom are Latino. - photo by Scott Rogers
An ‘equal opportunity virus’

While there has been a higher prevalence in the Latino community of Hall County, Couch and Rios stressed this is an “equal opportunity virus.”

“Just because we’re seeing a harder prevalence in one specific community or industry or socioeconomic demographic doesn’t mean that the others should relax on what they’re doing,” Couch said. “They need to continue to follow all of the extra recommendations for isolation, social distancing, wearing masks. Just because you may be in a different socioeconomic bracket doesn’t protect you from this virus.”

NGHS began geomapping cases roughly a month ago, and as a result the system has been more proactive in collaborating with industry and community leaders.

There have been talks recently between hospital administration and the poultry industry leaders.

Georgia Poultry Federation President Mike Giles said the federation began communicating with its members around the middle of March, when signs of a pandemic were growing, on suggested best practices for slowing the spread of the virus.

“The hospital has been very aggressive in helping coordinate messaging to the community, and that includes employers,” Giles said. “The messages are how to protect yourself, what you do if you’re sent home for quarantine, how do you protect those in your household.”

Georgia’s poultry industry produces more than 31 million pounds of chicken and 7 million eggs daily.

These best practices for safety have included enhanced sanitation routines at processing facilities, additional handwashing stations, more screening for employees showing signs of illness and staggering breaks to limit the number of people congregating at any one time.

“In normal times, poultry processing facilities employ practices that are designed to reduce pathogens within production facilities for food safety purposes,” Giles wrote in a statement. “Given the serious nature of the COVID-19 situation, poultry operations are using the expertise that they have in these sanitation and hygiene areas to expand these activities to protect employees from exposure and the spread of COVID-19.”

Giles said there has been testing with remote thermometers before shifts begin, and partitions were installed to separate work stations where employees work in close proximity to one another.

Taking temperature presented a challenge early on, Giles said, due to the limited availability of the thermometers.

Fieldale Farms President Tom Hensley said there have been eight cases across the 1,500 employees at the Murrayville plant and four cases among 800 employees at the Gainesville plant.

Hensley said the first case was roughly three weeks ago with a woman in her 30s, who stayed home and is now back at work. 

She lived with family members who also worked for the plant, who were also asked to stay home while being compensated.

Anyone entering the facility with a high temperature sees a nurse, who determines whether the employee goes to a doctor for COVID-19 testing.

“We’re dealing with it on a day-to-day basis. I’m happy to say our absenteeism has not spiked,” Hensley said.

Each employee gets a new mask and smock every day, and these personal protective items are sanitized every night. 

Diana Souder, director of corporate communications for Perdue, said there have been a “limited number of cases” in Perdue facilities, though they have “decided not to specify every individual case moving forward out of respect for our associates’ privacy under applicable confidentiality guidelines.”

Souder said they are working with the local health department and following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines with each confirmed case.

Souder said Perdue has implemented measures Giles mentioned such as face masks, temperature checking and “installing temporary partitions between associates where social distancing isn’t possible.”

Pilgrim’s in Gainesville said they are also offering free preventative care and services through LiveHealth Online for virtual doctor visits. A public relations representative did not respond to an inquiry from The Times Friday regarding any positive COVID-19 cases.

Hall County Breakdown of Positive Cases

  • Latino: 49%
  • White: 33% 
  • Black: 9% 
  • Other/Unknown: 9% 

Service Area Breakdown of Positive Cases

  • White: 46%
  • Latino: 30%
  • Other/Unknown: 15% 
  • Black: 9% 

Source: Northeast Georgia Health System

Getting the word out

Christy Moore, NGHS community health improvement manager, said the health system and its partners have worked on grassroots education and nontraditional ways to reach families.

One such example has been having outreach workers alongside Gainesville City Schools’ employees while delivering lunches to discuss best practices for protecting their family. Bandannas and instructions on how to make face masks are being distributed.

Rios recorded a message for Easter that was disseminated through NGHS social media: “Estas Pascuas, por favor quédese en su casa,” which translated is, “This Easter, please stay in your home.”

Gallegos said he saw a lot of pastors and Latino leaders appealing for the community to stay home. 

“Being a minister and a faith believer, I even posted a video on our social media and my personal page basically stating to our community in Spanish, ‘(Just) because you’re a faith believer and you don’t get to go to Easter at a temple or at a building, it doesn’t make you less Christian or less of a believer. On the contrary, I believe that the Bible teaches us that faith with obedience goes hand in hand,’” Gallegos said.

The city of Gainesville government has made some posts bilingually, and people have reached out to Gallegos on what can be done to make sure information is making it out to the community.

“What I’ve told a lot of those people was that we need to translate the information, put it out there, put it at businesses that they shop or are going around,” he said.

LCO Vice President Semuel Maysonet and others passed out masks at the Latino grocery stores while also distributing literature in Spanish.

Art Gallegos

“I think we’re all trying to bring the message in every language to help people understand the importance that it is to follow these guidelines. These guidelines, now that they are being translated into a language that they can understand, I think it’s helping,” Gallegos said.

Norma Hernandez, who heads the Northeast Georgia Latino Chamber of Commerce, said volunteers have been making masks for distribution. Close to 300 masks were passed out at the Mexican grocery stores in a weekend.

“People are knocking at my door, and we are donating to whoever comes by and tells us how many they need,” Hernandez said.

Masks have also been distributed to the police department, treatment centers and even one business where employees were wearing paper towels strapped with rubber bands.

Hispanic Alliance GA hosted a live question-and-answers session on its Facebook Friday, April 17, with Dr. Rios.

Sarazua said the group received a lot of questions regarding what to do when quarantined, when to go for testing and information on social distancing particularly in the workplace.

“We also want to try to cover a little bit about what the newest recommendations are for the community to use masks and how important that is,” she said before the Q-and-A. “I don’t believe they all have masks while they’re working in essential jobs right now, and so that’s concerning. I wonder what the curve would be if we had been instructed to do so at the beginning of this and what that would have meant for the workplace.”

Sarazua said they are hoping to get more of a “protocol” for the community, particularly for those who may not have health insurance.

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Pilgrim's employees walk along Industrial Boulevard Tuesday, April 14, 2020, as they leave the Gainesville poultry plant. - photo by Scott Rogers